The Story Behind Dark Waters Affects You (Yes, You)

Photo: Courtesy of Focus Features.
My colleague called Dark Waters the scariest movie of 2019, and not because Mark Ruffalo significantly underplays his good looks in his role as dogged Cincinnati lawyer Rob Bilott. Dark Waters exposes a decades-long pollution scheme that resulted in a PFOA, a highly toxic chemical, being in your — yes, your — blood
Dark Waters, out November 22, is adapted from a New York Times Magazine story that cast Bilott as a “worst nightmare” for DuPont, a centuries-old American chemical company. After encountering the article, Ruffalo, who is an activist as well as an actor, urgently wanted to produce a film and continue Bilott's work in bringing this story to the public. 
“Rob said, ‘Listen, if you option this story, I will tell you everything,’” Ruffalo recalled to  The Guardian, implying there was more to the story than stated in the New York Times Magazine interview with Frank Rich.   
It’s quite a story, t involving cows with green organs, decades of burying knowledge and chemicals, and a reveal with long-lasting and dire consequences. 
In 1999, when Bilott got the call that would change his life, he was working as an environmental lawyer Taft Stettinius & Hollister, a Cincinnati firm. According to the New York Times Magazine, Bilott was the “model” lawyer at Taft. He helped big corporations navigate environmental policies like the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Toxic Substances Control Act. Essentially, he enabled them to pollute but “legally.” 
On the other line was Wilbur Tennant (played by Bill Camp), a cattle farmer from Parkersburg, W.V. Tennant had a problem. By that point, 153 animals died had died grisly deaths on his property, including his cows (and livelihood). Dissections showed blackened teeth, discolored organs, malformed hooves, oozing slime. Tennant suspected that the water supply poisoned by the nearby DuPont plant was responsible. 
Typically, Bilott worked for companies like DuPont, not against them. But thanks to Tennant’s acquaintanceship with Bilott’s grandmother, Bilott didn’t hang up the phone. Instead, he decided to use his expertise in these cases to help Tennant. In doing so, Bilott was signing up for a fight that would take decades of his life and would continue past Tennant’s death. 
Bilott was a one-man investigation force. Digging through 110,000 pages of documents obtained by court order, Bilott discovered the culprit of the poisoning: perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a substance DuPont had been using since 1951 mainly during Teflon production. 
Concerningly, PFOA was not classified as a hazardous substance. Internally, after decades of animal testing and monitoring employees’ health, officials at DuPont knew PFOA was hazardous. Recently, we learned how hazardous. According to recent studies by the EPA, there is a probable link between PFOA and kidney cancer, testicular cancer, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, pre-eclampsia, and ulcerative colitis. PFOA was already affecting the West Virginia population.
Finally DuPont reported its findings about PFOA to the EPA in 1991. By then, it had been in the water stream for decades. As Tennant predicted, DuPont had used a field near his property as a PFOA dumping ground since the ‘80s. 
If PFOA so severely damaged Tennant’s cows, what was it doing to the local West Virginia population? How far had the PFOA traveled in the water supply? (Spoiler: Very far.) Scientists believe PFOA is likely contaminating the drinking water of tens of millions of Americans, across multiple states. 
PFOA contamination is now a global problem, as well. Though PFOA is no longer manufactured in the United States, China produces thousands of pounds of PFOA daily. Cases are sprouting in Australia. But there’s been a breakthrough. In May 2019, 180 countries agreed to ban the production and use of PFOA. 
Dark Waters shows the power of an individual. One man’s concern and another man’s obsession ended up revealing a massive conspiracy that affected millions. After the Tennants settled with DuPont, Bilott began to put together a class action lawsuit against DuPont. As of October 2016, DuPont has begun filing settlements to individual plaintiffs (there are 3,535 people suing for personal injury). PFOA may be on its way to becoming a thing of a past, but for now, it’s still in the water and our blood.
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